Politics & Government

A garage-size apartment? Hilton Head’s plan to get more workers to live on the island

If housing is more affordable on Hilton Head Island, town leaders say more workers will live there and spend their money locally instead of commuting from Bluffton and Hardeeville.

But do people want to live in an apartment slightly bigger than a single-car garage?

Providing resources for the workforce is a complex issue that pulls on several threads that make up the quilt of the island: a tourism and hospitality-driven economy that caters mostly to retirees and visitors; a workforce, the majority of which are in the service industry, that commutes to the island; and a Town Council that historically has represented property owners and tourists.

In 2018, the Town of Hilton Head Island hired a consultant to study the island’s housing stock and recommend how to make workforce housing available. Now, Hilton Head staff have reviewed those suggestions and created a plan.

The proposal, a year in the making, doesn’t please all who have advocated for workforce housing.

“Staff’s suggestions are a great start, but we are still not there,” local restaurant owner and workforce housing advocate Clayton Rollison said, voicing two concerns.

The town, he said, should actually ask businesses what they want from workforce housing and where. More broadly, he laments the use of terms such as “those people” when islanders discuss the workforce. ”Our retired community treats our working class as second-class citizens,” he said.

The plan is still being discussed. The town council has not scheduled a vote.

Here are four main components:

1. Target people who make $15,200 to $50,600 a year

Town staff want to target working people who make between 30 and 100 percent of the average income of the area, which is $15,200 to $50,600 a year for a single person, according to the report.

For a family of four, that range is $25,100 to $72,200.

Affordable housing typically means homes and apartments for rent that are priced below market rate and housing efforts target households that make 60 percent or less of the county’s average income.

2. Make housing smaller

To make housing more affordable, town staff recommended smaller units.

The report says workforce units will be 20 percent smaller than the other apartments that are priced at the market rate, and it suggests creating 280 square-foot “micro-efficiency” units — one step below a studio apartment in size.

Although common in places like Manhattan, micro-efficiency units would be just 80 square feet larger than the average one-car garage. At the first review of the plan in August, town council member Tamara Becker called the smaller units “absolutely distasteful.”

Other workforce units suggested by staff include a 600-square-foot, single-bedroom unit and 800-square-foot, double-bedroom unit, which are more on par with national trends in apartment rentals.

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Rollison, the restaurant owner and housing advocate who employs dozens on the island, said housing should be designed with community in mind.

“People don’t want to live in micro housing; they want to be part of the community. If you don’t have a pool or a gym and communal area, you get what you’re trying to prevent: slummy apartments,” he said. “Unless you have some community amenity, all you have is a brick building with people living in it. You have storage.”

3. Use government-owned land for affordable housing

The town will choose at least one government-owned plot to develop for workforce housing.

That won’t be easy, though, the report said.

Hilton Head Island has severe land constraints for developing workforce housing, the report said. Restrictions include covenants that land the town buys not be developed, as well as council initiatives to reduce the number of streets along U.S. 278.

But council member Bill Harkins suggested at the review of the plan in August that such deals are not set in stone.

“A lot of people may say all town land is sacred, it’s guaranteed by referendum to be green forever,” he said. “That’s not the case.”

The report specifies that “town-owned property should only be available for projects that demonstrate that they will meet the workforce housing targets as identified by Town Council.”

In 2011, the town donated land to Habitat for Humanity for the construction of a 32-lot single-family subdivision.

Three homes constructed as part of phase one of The Glen, an affordable housing community off Marshland Road. Alex Kincaid akincaid@islandpacket.com

4. Seek a regional housing trust fund

Part of the plan is also to create a regional trust fund for housing, and have Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, the City of Beaufort, Hardeeville, Port Royal and Beaufort County contribute to it.

The Southern Lowcountry Regional Board has a committee working to establish the fund, and the money could be used locally for “financing to close the gap between delivering market-rate units versus workforce units,” the report says.

At the August review of the plan, deputy director of community development Jennifer Ray said a consultant hired by the regional board would “iron out the details of how much (a municipality) should contribute and how to get what they need back.”

On Tuesday, the town council approved hiring a consultant to help form the regional trust but did not vote on whether to join the group.

New apartments on the island

As the plan moves forward, a high-density apartment development is in the works for the Hilton Head Island Christian Academy campus on Gardner Road.

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The most current plan for the Hilton Head Christian Academy campus by Spandrel Development Partners. A previous application to rezone the site for 300 apartments was withdrawn after two hours of public comment on the issue on April 2. Spandrel Development Partners, released.

The developers have promised to reserve 5% of the 260 units — 13 apartments — for workforce housing.

Their application comes in front of town staff for review next week.

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Town of Hilton Head Island pre-application meeting agenda package.
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